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The difference between a cosmetic chemist and a cosmetic product formulator

April 28, 2018

A formulator can follow and build a cosmetic recipe but may not think too much about why these certain things hold together or they might think about it but can’t really elaborate beyond basics.

A chemist can also follow and build a cosmetic recipe but generally can explain how and why these things hold together and may even be able visualise the product they are making on a molecular interaction scale – at least to some degree.

A chemist may be a good or bad formulator and a product formulator may be a good or bad product formulator  –  what I mean here is that the formulations that either person puts together may or may not be successful physically, chemically and commercially.

In either case both a cosmetic chemist and a cosmetic product formulator generally get better at formulating with experience so long as they try new things and challenge themselves.

However, it doesn’t necessarily follow that a product formulator will understand the chemistry more with experience.  That depends on a number of things such as personal motivation,  ability to overcome internal and market bias, time and money to run experiments,  access to chemistry education and brain capacity.

I’m a chemist first, a formulator second.  I was a chemist before I was a formulator and as a formulator I’m experienced but I’m not neat and will never be able to produce the artisan amazingness that I wow over with some of the soap and bath bomb makers I have had the pleasure of dealing with.  However, what I can do is work out what is going on and why – but that doesn’t stop me from being able to make some great mistakes, it just means that once spotted, I can tell you why and then face palm myself for being such a dick.

So why am I pointing this out?

I’m telling you this because I often get asked about the courses I teach and specifically asked if I can teach how to make organic products or some other niche type of thing.  My general answer to that is that I could but I won’t (at least not straight off the bat).  What I teach is chemistry to people who want to become better cosmetic product formulators. They might also want to become cosmetic chemists and if they study a bit more chemistry and take some more science qualifications then maybe they can be that but they won’t be that after taking a basic cosmetic science course. Well, not in my opinion.

I’m telling you this because while I understand and appreciate that you don’t NEED to be a chemist to be a good formulator, nor do you necessarily need to understand the chemistry behind your products you will do better and be more efficient if you at least appreciate the science a bit.

Cosmetic formulators with little chemistry understanding either need a good memory and lots of time for trial-and-error experimentation or they will be limited to just sticking to what already exists.  Again, that’s not a major problem unless you want to be truly innovative in some shape or form. So here’s a list of times when knowledge of Cosmetic Chemistry really does save your bacon.

  • 1. When the shit hits the fan.

When a formula is not stable,  an ingredient is not solubilising,  you are getting crystals form, you have cloudiness in your product or you can’t make your product ‘set’ or your actives stable.  Just being a chemist won’t automatically solve these problems – its not a super power – but what it can do is help you investigate the problem, develop a theory and instigate an experiment to test that.  Then, hopefully (fingers crossed) you will fix the issue once and for all and life will feel a whole lot less random and unpredictable.

  • 2.  When you’ve got a tight deadline. 

Rather than just line up ten ingredient combo’s and diligently work through each one it is so much better when you can hone in on one or two potential fixes straight away.  This may not mean that you come up with a perfect customer-lovably formula straight away but that you will overcome the basic issues of stability, price and product philosophy much sooner leaving you more time to work on getting the softer elements of the formula perfect.

  • 3.  When you are trying to combine awkward or delicate actives.

Not all things play well together and if you have an understanding of chemistry you can predict this and once again short-cut R&D time.   You may say ‘well supplier data does also help here and reading that saves you time’ and it does to a point but there’s been more than one occasion when I’ve read through what the ingredient supplier/ manufacturer has written, understood the underlying science and pushed the boundaries of what they’ve said.  Remember that manufacturer and supplier data is there to sell the ingredient and make using it easy. Just like with many drugs, there are ‘off script’ ways of using these thing too.

  • 4. When you have to make the formula cheaper.

Understanding what you can and can’t pull back on in terms of percentage input or ingredient choice is something that you can gain from experience (just doing) but is made more efficient by chemistry knowledge.  This is what I call ‘formula optimisation’ and generally a good cosmetic chemist should be able to do this and maintain the results of the product while saving ingredients and money.

  • 5. When you need to substitute one thing for another.

These days so many briefs come with long ‘free from’ lists.  Having a handle on chemistry can be really key when working with the longest ‘to-don’t’ lists and saves endless google ‘research’ looking for a pre-done recipe that fits – that’s not chemistry that’s just cooking.

  • 6. When you want to boost product efficacy.

There’s a lot of science that goes on behind skin penetration of actives and while trial and error can get you so far, it’s chemistry that will get you there faster and more effectively.

  • 7. When you want to answer customer questions properly rather than just regurgitating what’s been said before.

I’d say that around 90% of what is shared on the internet is un-original, repeated, half-information with only a tenuous link to science.  I’ve had many a person say things to me like ‘as you know, raspberry seed oil is widely reported as a  UV active’ to which I usually say ‘yes, widely reported but all stemming back to one small scientific paper so basically it’s just a red hot gossip piece’.  A chemistry background does help one to read and interpret the scientific paper(s) that underpins this internet noise and it can stop us banking on something that’s actually quite tenuous.

  • 8.  When you want to assess risk. 

There are a couple of good examples of this that keep cropping up.  One is the reaction between Sodium Benzoate and vitamin C to liberate benzene, a carcinogen. This was big news in 2006 with the soft drink scandal in the USA.   

This rang alarm bells in the cosmetic world as we do use sodium benzoate as a preservative and also use vitamin C, either adding it directly as ascorbic acid or as part of natural extracts (Kakadu Plum being a popular one here in Australia).  Natural cosmetics are most likely to have this preservative and vitamin C present.   A a chemist though instead of running to the lab to re-formulate everything,  I, along with others like me, were able to run to the research and quickly ascertain that the above reaction progresses best at pH 6-7 and that it can be quelled with a cheating agent.  Cosmetic Chemists know that they can’t put ascorbic acid into an aqueous product for long without it disappearing (via oxidation) anyway, let alone if it was at a pH of 6-7 so generally these products are at a pH of 3.6-4 and utilise chelating agents.  Even in formulations that don’t have chelating agents there are other steps we can take to mitigate the risk of this, plus the fact that in the canned drink any benzene produced was trapped, whereas with most cosmetics, even in airless packaging there is opportunity for gas to escape.  So the risk profile for cosmetics is quite different.   Without chemistry knowledge it would just be a case of perpetuating the myth that these two ingredients can never be used together and that could ultimately lead to way more expensive formulations (As sodium benzoate is a cheap preservative).

I’m sure there are many more examples but these are some of the ones that sung out to me.

As a chemistry teacher I am passionate about people gaining a better chemical and general scientific literacy in order to help them become better formulators and smarter brand owners.

So when a client asks me if I can run a ‘making organic skincare’  chemistry class and I say no, I go on to explain that once you understand the structural chemistry that goes on behind a formula, you won’t need me to show you how to make an organic product (as mostly that’s just a calculator / desk top exercise), you’ll just know and how liberating would that be!

That said, I do teach using naturally derived additives as chassis ingredients as a gateway on to organic or back to synthetic so all bases are somewhat covered.

Well, I hope that’s inspired you to become a chemist.  We need more in the world so we can stop spreading rubbish fake science news.




12 Comments leave one →
  1. April 29, 2018 2:09 am

    Another excellent clarification. I am neither a formulator nor a chemist. I am an educator to the pet grooming industry. It’s my job to explain stuff to pet groomers. Your blog is one of my most trusted resources. You are a great explainer! PS. I love when you drop a shit bomb. Keepin’ it real!

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      April 29, 2018 8:24 am

      Thanks Barbara, I do love writing, it helps me vent my frustrations as well hence the occasional swearing hahahaha

  2. Jean Althoff permalink
    June 5, 2018 9:57 pm

    Your post is perfect. I am a formulator and not a chemist and everything you say is true (from my many years of experience). Recently, I decided to study science – Chemistry 100 being my first subject for exactly the reasons you outline in your article. Yes, it is a struggle for me to get my head around the subject – but I know through persevering my formulating will truly benefit – and you have given me even more reasons than I ever realised!

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      June 6, 2018 12:32 am

      Thank you so much. I think there’s nothing more satisfying than being able to look at a cosmetic product and know where all the chemicals are hanging out, what you can do to change that and how you can make things look, feel and perform better. IT’s not that all that comes together every time in practice but it’s still nice to be able to experiment with some degree of confidence about your actions. I am sure you’ll enjoy understanding things to a deeper level.

  3. sukimarmelaide permalink
    May 28, 2019 9:53 am

    Dear Amanda,
    As you know, i’ve been trying to figure out which end is up for awhile now; i’ve bookmarked & re-read this blog post in a thousand different files, a thousand different times, & i hope i finally figured out how to ask my questions.
    Ok, so, presently, i’m cobbling together a ‘clean room’, w/baffles & ventilators & tyvek suits, separate building from my home & its 3 uber-furry wanna-be lab assistants(our dogs), & i’m doing my best to follow the FDA’s dictates re:caged ltbulbs & elevated supplies. As of now, for help, i have me, my biz partner & 2-3 ‘helpers’ (read ‘room-mates’) to make up orders. The website is still under construction, but otherwise, we’re almost a going concern.
    My question is mostly theoretical, b/c its contingent on the raving success that will inevitably occur the moment my unknown domain name suddenly becomes a store. So, i probably won’t have to even worry about any of this. Yay!
    However, if somehow, i suddenly have more orders than people to help fill them, then, if i choose to employ a contract manufacturer, can i have them use my formulae?
    That’s my 1st question. Here’s where it gets sticky. If there are glaring flaws in my formulae, flaws that i can’t spot w/o a centrifuge or a lab or a chemistry degree, will those manufacturers tell me? Or will they just let me put my crappy products on the market?
    That’s my 2nd question. My 3rd question is, do i, at that point, consult you in order to help me to fix those problems, & if i do that, can i say, in good conscience, that they are still my formulae?
    Like, right now i am a ‘handmade artisan’, if i get help fixing all those charming, rustic, likely disgusting character traits of my funky little handmade brand, will i still be a ‘handmade artisan’? Not that i’m married, in any way, to any potential grodiness i might be free-gifting to my customers. God knows i desperately DON’T want to cause any harm to anyone!
    And b/c that’s the real nub of the problem, i guess my last question to you is, where in the above timeline would you consult you?
    Your irritating, but adoring reader, suki

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      June 4, 2019 9:38 pm

      A contract manufacturer will use your formula but you will probably have to provide stability and micro data before they will scale it up bigger than their minimum batch. You still own the IP when you do this. If your formula is crap that’s your problem really, sometimes it happens to all of us, we make something in the lab that’s great but it’s rubbish in scale up for one or another reason. The manufacturer will give you the service you pay for. You may need to consult with an independent professional if you are worried about safety or other things. The one thing a manufacturer does check here is NICNAS compliance of materials but only for what they provide. With regards to you getting help from me or another chemist why wouldn’t you? I really don’t understand why ‘artisan’ has come to mean ‘do everything yourself including teach yourself the science’. In the old days artisans were professionals who had perfected their craft, now they are novices who are too scared to seek advice. I am not sure if that’s irresponsible or delusional. The right chemist will help you achieve a safe and scalable formula without it losing its charm. I spend hours fixing a formula issue simply to prove it can be done then doing it the long and hard way to keep the label and feel ‘clean’. Thanks for the questions, as for when to call me I can’t answer that as I’m not sure what stage you are really up to.

  4. sukimarmelaide permalink
    June 5, 2019 3:24 am

    Thank you so much for your time & thoughtful answer. It clarifies a lot for me.
    Its irresponsible AND delusional, obviously. i see that now. Also, you are correct about the frightened novices. i think ‘artisan’ used to imply a level of mastery, & i’ve always believed mastery required a minimum of 10,000 hours of study & practice. One of the reasons this field is so fascinating is that even after that initial 10,000 hours, one really feels like they still have more questions than answers.
    Again, i appreciate your response so much. To me, you are The Paragon of cosmetic chemistry, far & away surpassing your peers, b/c you are never frightened of the truth, only curious. You don’t hide behind empiricism, like too many other scientists, but instead keep pushing against the ceiling. Science is the better for people like yourself, even if there’s only a small handful of you alive at any given time on the planet.
    Respectfully yours, suki

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      June 5, 2019 4:34 am

      Thanks Suki that’s very sweet. I too believe that 10,000 hours is important but I have also seen way too many people spend 10,000 hours on building knowledge based on incorrect or unscientific assumptions. Even other scientists can do that, that’s a feature of our biases which are all part of being human. 😁

      • Hanan Elior permalink
        April 24, 2020 8:50 pm

        Hi Amanda, I am looking for chemist and formulator to make great organic product such as hand liquid soap, face oil serum, or just take a great product out there in a market and copie it and make it with 100% natural & 95% organics with usda seal . If you can suggest me someone in l.a California. Thanks

      • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
        April 28, 2020 1:41 pm

        Maybe try Perry Romanowski and his Chemists Corner. Not sure where in the USA he is based but he definitely has a better idea of who is around over there to help you!

  5. Jill permalink
    April 21, 2021 6:52 am

    I can’t thank you enough for this value information. I was literally seconds away from pushing accept my order for an online class before I thought let me look at the differences, the pros and cons and/or the advantages to the two courses. You have helped me make my decision, thank you for your well rounded opinion.

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      April 21, 2021 11:09 am

      Not all online courses are bad but it’s just really important to work out what you want from a course and teacher and then map your needs with the right course. It can be tricky, there’s lots on offer.

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